Sunday, August 19, 2018
Health

The next step in a sex abuse survivor's recovery: Erasing her tattoo

Even after 20 years, Sufiyah can't escape the memories of being sexually exploited by gang members as a teenager. • The tattoo makes it impossible.

There it sits, a small gang symbol etched between her left thumb and index finger. Every time she looks at her hand she is reminded of the abuse.

Finally, with the help of a Tampa tattoo business that offers free services to sex-trafficking survivors, Sufiyah is getting it removed.

"I had a dream that I looked down at my hand and it was completely gone," said Sufiyah, 35, who asked that her last name and address not be used for safety reasons. "When I had that dream, I thought, 'I'm ready. I'm ready to do this.' "

Thursday morning marked her second session at Tampa Tattoo Vanish, a small, one-room business on N Florida Avenue. Inside, owner Brian Morrison put on black surgical gloves and used an electric needle gun to break open Sufiyah's skin and apply a product that turns the ink into a scab.

The room has magazines and a television. Morrison said he tries to distract clients from the pain with the TV or conversation.

Morrison, 40, opened the store in March, he said, with the intent of helping human-trafficking survivors move on with their lives. He has lived in Tampa for 19 years and still works as an operating room nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital —North.

Morrison said he was sexually abused himself, though not as a result of human trafficking. That experience drove him to try to help other survivors.

"I can't ask people that have been through way worse than me to put their stories out there (without doing the same)," he said.

The other reason Morrison was interested? He loves tattoos, of which he has several.

"Every tattoo on my body is there because I wanted it there," he said. "It's overwhelming to me to think these people were drugged and tattooed without their permission."

Often, tattoos on sex-trafficking survivors are marks of property, he said. And they can make it hard for survivors to find work.

Sufiyah said every time an employer asks about her tattoo, she has to decide how much of her history to divulge.

"That was always kind of difficult for me, and it was triggering, because it would bring up all this, 'Hey, this was something gang-related, this was something to do with exploitation,' " she said.

The tattoo Sufiyah has had since age 15 represents a gang she once considered her family. She was just 12 when she was sexually abused for first time.

"I was always opposed to sexual exploitation and selling your body," she said. "But sometimes, exploitation occurs more subtly, especially during the grooming process.''

She and Morrison got in touch through social media a few months ago as he was trying to partner with survivor groups.

"This is exactly what I want to do to help," he said.

His initial plan was to meet with survivors directly, but he was told many would be apprehensive about inviting someone new into their house.

So he arranged a more flexible schedule at the hospital and set up a storefront. It's taken about $9,000 of his own money to get Tampa Tattoo Vanish off the ground, he said.

The American Academy of Dermatology and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommend tattoo removal with laser surgery by a dermatologist rather than the procedure Morrison uses, which was developed by another nurse in 2003.

Any method that's not validated by an FDA study gives Tampa dermatologist Dr. Milan Lombardi pause, he said, though he said he was unfamiliar with Tampa Tattoo Vanish.

Morrison said the cost of laser tattoo removal is often prohibitive for his clients, and said he wishes there were free laser tattoo removal for survivors.

Using the Tattoo Vanish method, the tattoo usually disappears after about five treatments, he said, and patients need about six weeks between treatments. He charges paying customers about $120 an hour. So far, he's had four clients who are sex-trafficking survivors.

Sufiyah didn't realize she had been a victim until she was 30.

Now she works with Selah Freedom, a national nonprofit that mentors survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, which can be any type of sexual exploitation of minors in exchange for something of value, such as money, food or shelter.

Her work with other survivors pushed her to remove her tattoo.

"I think that this is a wonderful opportunity for them, so it's something that I should have the courage to take that step myself," she said.

Contact Langston Taylor at [email protected] Follow @langstonitaylor.

   
Comments
Children who lived with smokers are more likely to die of lung disease as adults, study says

Children who lived with smokers are more likely to die of lung disease as adults, study says

Childhood exposure to secondhand smoke is linked to lung disease decades later, according to a study published Thursday by the American Cancer Society.For 22 years, researchers have been following more than 70,000 adults who have never smoked. At the...
Published: 08/17/18
Ready for a little conditioning? Make like a football player or cheerleader with these moves

Ready for a little conditioning? Make like a football player or cheerleader with these moves

We all gear up for gridiron season in our own way.Some of us don a favorite jersey and fly the team flag from the front porch. Others pick out the best booth at the local sports bar and slide into place for a day of pitchers and wings. And then there...
Published: 08/17/18
Fentanyl use drove drug overdose deaths to a record high in 2017, CDC estimates

Fentanyl use drove drug overdose deaths to a record high in 2017, CDC estimates

Drug overdose deaths surpassed 72,000 in 2017, according to provisional estimates recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That represents an increase of more than 6,000 deaths, or 9.5 percent, over the estimate for the pr...
Published: 08/16/18
The hardest part: actually choosing the day of his death. ‘No one is ever really ready.’

The hardest part: actually choosing the day of his death. ‘No one is ever really ready.’

In the end, it wasn’t easy for Aaron McQ to decide when to die.The 50-year-old Seattle man — a former world traveler, triathlete and cyclist — learned he had leukemia five years ago, followed by an even grimmer diagnosis in 2016: a rare form of amyot...
Published: 08/15/18
Tampa Bay sports teams join forces to assist Times correspondent Joey Johnston

Tampa Bay sports teams join forces to assist Times correspondent Joey Johnston

The Tampa Bay Sports Commission along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning, Rays, Rowdies and University of South Florida have teamed up to host a two week, community wide Team Tampa Bay for Joey J 50-50 Raffle. The raffle began Aug. 13 and will ...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/18/18
Tampa General ranked Florida’s second-best hospital in U.S. News study

Tampa General ranked Florida’s second-best hospital in U.S. News study

Tampa General Hospital was ranked as Florida’s second-best hospital in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2018 Hospital Rankings released Tuesday, while Moffitt Cancer Center was named the country’s eighth-best cancer hospital.The rankings, which analy...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Florida Hospital to change its name to AdventHealth

Florida Hospital to change its name to AdventHealth

Beginning next year, the Florida Hospital brand will be known as AdventHealth.The Central Florida-based health care chain, which has nearly 50 hospital campuses and more than 80,000 employees, including seven hospitals around Tampa Bay, announced the...
Published: 08/14/18
Life skills, love shared at GiGi’s

Life skills, love shared at GiGi’s

TAMPA — Learning, life skills and love are offered unconditionally at GiGi’s Playhouse Tampa, a Down syndrome achievement center opening Saturday.Specially-designed therapeutic, educational and career development programs are provided for all ages, a...
Published: 08/13/18
Updated: 08/15/18
Pinellas health officials report measles in an unvaccinated child

Pinellas health officials report measles in an unvaccinated child

An unvaccinated child has contracted the contagious measles virus in Pinellas County, according to the Florida Department of Health, which said Monday it is investigating the case. It was unclear how the child contracted the virus, according to the h...
Published: 08/13/18
CVS offering 24-hour ‘virtual care’ on its app to treat minor illnesses

CVS offering 24-hour ‘virtual care’ on its app to treat minor illnesses

Florida residents seeking treatment for minor health problems can now take advantage of a new, quick, virtual service from CVS Health’s MinuteClinic.The new service, called MinuteClinic Video Visits, will provide patients with video access to health-...
Published: 08/09/18